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Parkinson at 50

Benjie Goodhart / 26 August 2021

Michael Parkinson looks back at the most memorable moments from his groundbreaking chat show, which first aired in 1971.

Parkinson at 50, Saturday 28th August, 8pm, BBC One

No, we’ve not entered some weird time loop and gone back 36 years, Michael Parkinson isn’t 50. If we had, I’d be 12, and spending all my time thinking about football, eating biscuits and watching telly. As opposed to my 2021 iteration, who spends all his time thinking about football, eating biscuits and watching telly, but with the occasional addition break to shout at my kids.

No, it’s the legendary TV show Parkinson that is 50. Its venerable host Michael is now 86, but still an eloquent and thoughtful character, as evidenced by this intriguing, funny and moving hour-long tribute to the show that made him a household name.

Parkinson ran for over 600 episodes, and in his time, the great man interviewed over 2,000 guests. The first episode went out on June 16th 1971, so technically, the show is now 50 years and two-and-a-bit months old. I’m not quite sure why this programme couldn’t have gone out on the anniversary, but presumably it had something to do with us all being obsessed with Euro 2020 at the time. Parkinson, more of a cricket man (he played youth cricket with Dickie Bird and Geoff Boycott) but an enjoyer of football as well, doubtless understood.

Anyway, here we are, and it’s well worth the wait. This documentary sees Parkinson going through the archives of some of his most celebrated interviews, and being interviewed by his son, Mike.

Parkinson grew up in a pit village in Yorkshire, where his father was a miner. His parents were determined their son wouldn’t work down the mine – so much so that his dad took him down there as a boy, to witness the grim, dirty, backbreaking and dangerous world for himself. “It frightened the hell out of me,” Parkinson recalls.

Watch some of the most memorable chat show moments

It worked well enough, though. The young Parkinson developed an interest in journalism, conducting his first interview aged 14, with a local glass blower. It’s fair to say, it may not have been his most riveting interview, but we all start somewhere. He made it to Fleet Street, and was then poached by fledgling ITV station Granada, hosting their daily current affairs magazine show.

His big break came when he was given his own show, Cinema, dedicated to… er… cinema. It was on this series that his facility for interviewing stars became apparent, and the BBC’s Director General, Bill Cotton, offered him his own chat show in the summer of 1971 as a ten-week experiment. The ten-week show ended up running for 31 series.

As such, from all his myriad encounters with remarkable celebrities, you’d expect the archive footage in this show to be pretty marvellous. And you will not be disappointed. The show features all of his greatest hits, from his flirting with Shirley MacLaine and Lauren Bacall (and Miss Piggy) to his tap-dancing with Bruce Forsyth and singing with Bing Crosby. There is a glorious sequence of improvised opera featuring the comedic genius of Peter Ustinov and Dudley Moore, and some delightful encounters with the force of nature that was Joan Rivers.

And then there are the ones that everyone remembers, that audiences will never tire of watching. There are some deeply uncomfortable moments, including his famous first interview with Muhammad Ali. Parkinson recalls the moment Ali strolled onto set: “I remember thinking ‘I’ve never seen a more beautiful man in my life’.” But the beauty was soon replaced by a fierce and unquenchable rage, which was both electrifying and disconcerting, as Ali abused Parkinson’s physical and intellectual attributes.

What is really impressive here is that Parkinson is happy to hold his hands up when he thinks he got it wrong. Famously frosty interviews with both Meg Ryan and Helen Mirren could, with hindsight, have been handled much better, he admits.

And there is, of course, a section on the legend that is Billy Connolly, who appeared numerous times on the show, and became great friends with its host. Most of his appearances were famously hilarious, but on one particularly memorable occasion, Connolly opened up about the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his father. It was, of course, handled with the utmost sensitivity and grace by Parky.

So what, then, was his favourite of the more than 2,000 interviews? Towards the end of the show, Parkinson finally reveals the answer to this question – and it’s not something you’d expect. What it is, though, is profoundly moving, as he reveals just how much it has affected him ever since. “It was a moment of my life that I shall never forget,” he recalls, choking back tears.

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Vigil, Sunday 29th August, 9pm, BBC One

I love a good story set on a submarine. Like, really, really love it. Das Boot, the classic German film set aboard a U-Boat, is an astonishingly tense work – and the (much longer) TV series is even better. The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide are both great watches, and the World War II epic We Dive at Dawn has stood the test of time brilliantly.

I think it’s something to do with the fact that I’d be terrified on a submarine. For similar reasons, I love books about polar expeditions or climbing Everest: I simply can’t think of anything worse. And the idea of being stuck inside a glorified tin can, surrounded by nuclear missiles, not breathing fresh air or seeing daylight for months on end, is little short of horrific to me. But watching it from the comfort of my sofa, with a glass of chilled Prosecco, gives me a certain thrill.

I was delighted, then, to discover that both the BBC and ITV are launching (no pun intended) dramas set aboard nuclear submarines this year. ITV’s Tenacity does not yet have a transmission date, but Vigil is here, and mighty impressive it is, too.

I’d like to tell you more about what happens, but the BBC’s list of spoilers not to be revealed is extensive, and I dread the idea of a knock at the door to reveal two stern-looking BBC commissioning editors, in cable-knit cardigans and skinny jeans, ready to take me into custody. Also, to be fair, they just want to keep a few surprises back for the viewers, which is hardly too much to ask.

Here’s what I can tell you.

The Vigil is a vast nuclear sub – the length of two football pitches, the height of four double decker buses. And after an incident at sea, a crew member is found dead in his quarters. Initially, it looks like a drug overdose – but you know as well as I do that the chances of a six-part drama ending up concluding that it was just that, and that nothing else untoward happened at all, are slim to none.

So DCI Amy Silva (the consistently excellent Suranne Jones) is tasked with investigating the case. The only problem is, Vigil is on patrol, and can’t return to port. Instead, she has to be taken out by helicopter to a rendezvous point in the middle of the ocean, and winched down to the sub. Once there, she can’t communicate with anyone back on terra firma, and can only receive occasional incoming missives. Imagine! No WhatsApp. No Facebook or Twitter! (Suddenly submarines don’t seem so scary after all).

On board ship, she encounters a crew displaying varying degrees of hostility towards her. To make matters worse, DCI Silva is dealing with a trauma in her past (aren’t they always, in police dramas…) and is in danger of coming apart at the seams.

Meanwhile, back at the submarine base in Scotland, Silva’s colleague, DC Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) is looking into the back story of the victim. The overdose story doesn’t fit with his profile (now there’s a surprise). But the navy top brass, it’s fair to say, aren’t exactly playing ball at this end, either.

The tension ramps up impressively, considering this is just the opening episode. From first to last, this is packed with intrigue, the plot moving along at a cracking pace. And the weird, claustrophobic life of a submariner is beautifully evoked, on a set that must have cost quite a few bob to make. It was worth every penny – this is cracking stuff. Episode two, incidentally, is on Monday night, with the final four episodes reverting to Sundays. It promises to be appointment viewing.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 28th August

Bettany Hughes’ Treasures of the Wild 1/5, 8pm, Channel 4: The historian embarks on a global odyssey in search of some of history’s most precious artefacts. Tonight, unsurprisingly, Greece is front and centre.

Princess Alexandra: The Queen’s Confidante, 8:30pm, Channel 5: Documentary examining the eight decades (good genes, this lot…) of friendship between the Queen and her bestie, Alexandra Ogilvy.

Sunday 29th August

Chris and Meg’s Wild Adventure 1/6, 8:30pm, BBC Two: The always watchable Chris Packham and his stepdaughter, Meg McCubbin, go on a wildlife-spotting road trip. Tonight, on the hunt for otters and puffins in Pembrokeshire.

Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: Want to see a group of celebrities getting tortured and shouted at? Of course you do. Among those whose heads are on the block are Ulrika Jonsson, Kerry Katona, James Cracknell and Kieron Dyer.

Monday 30th August

Surviving 9/11, 9pm, BBC Two: The stories of 13 people caught up in the events of that fateful day, and how they have fared in the two decades since then.

Stephen, 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Drama set in 2006. Thirteen years after the brutal racist murder of their son Stephen, Neville and Doreen Lawrence are still fighting for justice. Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, this affecting drama stars Sharlene Whyte, Hugh Quarshie and Steve Coogan.

Tuesday 31st August

9/11: Inside the President’s War Room, 8:30pm, BBC One: Feature-length documentary charting the events of September 11 and the subsequent US response, featuring interviews with George W Bush, Condeleezza Rice, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell.

Wednesday 1st September

Lee Mack’s Road to Soccer Aid, 9pm, ITV: Programme charting the fabulously funny Mack’s efforts to prepare himself for this year’s Soccer Aid, with help from Sven Goran Eriksson, Sir Mo Farah, Eddie Izzard and Rob Brydon.

Grand Designs, 9pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud returns for series one squillion of the evergreen home-building show. Tonight, a couple are planning to build and live in a vast sculpture in South Devon. You just know it’ll be late and over budget.

Thursday 2nd September

Live International Football: Hungary v England, 7:15pm, ITV: Coverage of England’s World Cup Qualifier from Budapest, against a team that performed admirably at the recent European Championships.

Sixteen: Class of 2021, 9pm, Channel 4: New documentary series charting the lives of teenagers as they attempt to pursue their studies amidst the rigours of lockdown.

Friday 3rd September

Grantchester, 9pm, ITV: New series of the popular 50’s-based detective drama. The Keatings are off to a holiday camp for a well-earned break. But, wouldn’t you know it, a murder in the holiday camp draws in Geordie (Robson Green) in an effort to find the culprit.

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